New Reality Show: Congress Returns to Extreme Makeover
Policy + Politics

New Reality Show: Congress Returns to Extreme Makeover

As battle-scarred lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week for a post-election session that is likely to be dominated by taxes and spending cuts, the specter of insurgent Tea Party members is already exerting influence.

Over the coming month, the President,  Democrats demoralized by the  election,  and  newly powerful GOP leaders must agree on whether or not to extend all or part of the expiring  Bush era tax cuts, work out a compromise spending scheme to keep the government operating, and find enough money to avert a scheduled cut in Medicare payments to doctors. The tax cuts will expire by Dec. 31 without congressional action, and President Obama is under immense pressure from Republicans to extend the tax break to all Americans, including the wealthiest two percent.

The House is also likely to quickly approve a one-time $250 payment to seniors to make up for the lack of a cost-of-living increase  in Social Security benefits this year – although that measure would have problems in the Senate.  The first week of the lame duck  session  will be spent on relatively minor issues and electing new leadership for the 112th Congress, putting off major legislative decisions until at least after Thanksgiving.

For now, John Boehner, the Republican leader in line to become Speaker of the House in January, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be front and center, as President Obama and Democratic leaders will be solicitous of their views when they meet at the White House this week.

But once the new Congress takes office in January, all eyes will be riveted on the Tea Party newcomers, who have vowed to fight new spending and tax increases and to take on the political establishment in Washington.  In the Senate, four freshman – Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mike Lee of Utah – constitute the leading edge of the Tea Party reformers on Washington.

The Tea Party Muscles In
The new Tea Party members will have outsized influence compared to most freshmen. For one, they are a large group that appeared to catch the tide of voter displeasure with Washington. They have become prominent in the minds of Americans and of congressional leaders who know they must pay attention to the Tea Party members as they plot legislative strategy or find more of their members ousted in two years.

The Tea Party agenda may be in direct conflict with the entrenched leadership which seems determined to listen to them but at the same time keep a tight rein on the real power. For example Bachmann’s bid to join the leadership was thwarted and she withdrew in favor of Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the leaders’ choice.

Despite Bachmann’s outspokenness and ability to rally the Tea Partiers, leaders were leery of putting her in an even more visible place as a spokeswoman for the GOP. She has a well-deserved reputation for saying outrageous things that might put the party in a bind (She once called the elected leaders the “gangster government,” for example). Instead, Bachmann, the titular head of the Tea Party in the House, has formed the “Constitutional Conservatives Caucus” which she claims has 60 members.

It will be up to these new members to decide what role they
want to play in their new jobs – tormentors or Republican
team players.

A true test of the Tea Partiers will come next year when the federal debt limit  will have to be raised. Many of the Tea Party-endorsed candidates say they will “never” vote to increase spending or taxes, and are refusing to commit to raising the $14.3 trillion federal debt limit, which will have to be lifted early in the year so the United States does not default on its obligations worldwide.

Many of those who identify with the Tea Party have decidedly unorthodox backgrounds. While there are some traditional state lawmakers and public officials among them, there are also ranchers, car salesmen, an eye doctor, and a former professional football player, to name a few. Most are white and male, but they represent states throughout the country. It will be up to these new members to decide what role they want to play in their new jobs – tormentors or Republican team players.

In an attempt to mollify the Tea Partiers (or co-opt them), the House GOP leadership is likely to add a member to their leadership team when the new session convenes in January. That member is said to be Kristi Noem, a Republican state legislator from South Dakota who defeated Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University and a former Senate staffer, says she thinks  Republicans will somehow figure out how to muster enough support to lift the debt ceiling, but that the Tea Partiers will “push it to the limit as a statement to their supporters they are willing to fight and when it passes they will blame it on Obama.”

Bachmann’s spokesman, Sergio Gor, seemed to confirm that sentiment. “She [Bachmann] is against raising the debt limit,” he said. “It’s a completely last resort.”

Schiller says the Tea Party members’ actions will reflect the tough stands they took on the campaign trail. Many of them ran saying that they didn’t plan to be in Washington for long and would not be co-opted by the political system. Some say they only plan to serve a two-year term or a six-year term in the Senate before  retiring.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked for many in the new Tea Party caucus, said it would be a mistake to underestimate the conservatism and stubbornness of these new members. “I’ve talked to these guys. The [Republican members elected in] ’94 are moderates compared to them,” he said. “They are all Steve Largents, all of them,” he added, referring to the ultra conservative former football player and Oklahoma House member elected in the 1994 GOP landslide. Largent wanted to abolish the federal tax code and sponsored a “parental rights” bill so conservative it was opposed even by other conservative Christian groups. “And good luck with that when you’ve got Barack Obama, who is the opposite,” Luntz said.

Who’s Who in the New Congress
Bachmann, while leading the new group in the House,   has been in Congress since 2006.  But some new members of Congress,  including senators-elect  Rand Paul, an eye doctor, and  Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a plastics company executive, have no legislative experience at all.


Rand Paul, something of a poster boy for the tea party movement, is the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He says he’s coming to Washington “to take our government back” and is calling for a Tea Party caucus in the Senate. Paul has called for the abolition of the Department of  Education and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),  has indicated opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (though he says he doesn’t support repeal) and made a statement that imposing a $2,000 deductible on Medicare would solve the program’s budget problems.

Paul is outspoken, has a big media following, and is in a position to make the life of his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader McConnell (who did not endorse him for the Republican nomination) even more difficult.

Johnson came out of relative obscurity to knock off veteran Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a reliable liberal in the Senate. A self-financed candidate, Johnson was portrayed by Feingold as knowing little about government. It didn’t seem to matter to the voters. Johnson said his political views were formed by Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged,” which talks about civilization being unable to exist when people are “slaves” to government.  Ayn Rand’s philosophy is known as Objectivism, which claims that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest, that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez faire capitalism,

Johnson also has looked to fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan’s conservative “roadmap” for budget reform which calls for partially privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare in the future into a voucher program. Significantly, Ryan’s proposal was not endorsed by the House GOP leadership.

Sen.-elect Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania was once head of the anti-tax group “Club for Growth.” He is wealthy former investment banking and founder of a financial services consulting firm. He also started a chain of restaurants with his brother, called “Rookie’s Restaurant and Sports Bar.” He has some government experience, having served six years in the House. He tried to limit spending even then, pushing for money to be set aside for debt reduction.

Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio is a fiery, 39-year-old lawmaker who has been labeled a “comer.” He was trailing in the race until he caught the Tea Party movement and joined in. The son of a bartender and a maid who fled Cuba when Fidel Castro took over, Rubio could be a player in the immigration debate, giving the Republicans at least one knowledgeable expert in a sea of Democrats. He once interned for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtenen and was mentored by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He’s no political novice and was speaker of the Florida House. 

Incoming Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.,  is so green he lists his cell phone number on his campaign Website (but lately his voice mailbox is full). Mulvaney, a state legislator, upset House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt by linking Spratt to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. who has been vilified by Republicans.

A ton of outside spending, urged by Sen. Jim DeMint  of South Carolina, helped propel Mulvaney to the top. He attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where he once took a course taught by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Democrat. He also has a law degree. Albright’s lessons may have stuck, but not her politics. Mulvaney says he got started in politics by stuffing envelopes for former President Ronald Reagan.